A Jewish Nation of Refugees

How can Israel maintain its Jewish character while at the same time opening its doors as a safe haven to those who ‘were left of the sword?’

Every year, on the Second Day of Rosh Hashannah, the Jewish world intones the comforting words of the prophet Jeremiah, a prophecy meant to remind us that the people once left for ruin, will again find comfort and peace in the land of Israel.

Koh amar Adonai: Matza chein bamidbar am s’ridei charev, halokh l’hargi’o Yisrael.

“Thus saith the Lord; the people that were left of the sword have found grace in the wilderness, even Israel, when I go to cause him rest.”

These words, foretelling an ultimate return of the Jewish people to their ancestral homeland after the destruction of the First Temple, have become a ubiquitous clarion call for our people: a reminder that though we were once a people of dispersion, despair and Diaspora – we have now established a haven of grace in the wilderness.

Yes, unfortunately the Jewish people know what it means to be an “am s’ridei charev,” “a people who were left of the sword.” We were forced to run away from thousands of swords for the better part of two millennia; so surely our collective memory mandates that we harbor a love for the stranger, the widow, and the orphan – the refugees who live in our midst.

Which is precisely why it so greatly pained me to read reports of anti-refugee race riots, in Tel Aviv’s now ironically named Hatikvah (The Hope) neighborhood, which recently turned violent. These riots focused their rage against the estimated 3,000 South Sudanese and Eritrean refugees who have sought shelter from the sword in the wilderness of southern Tel Aviv.

One thousand Israelis, whose ancestors no doubt fled the swords and fires of European and Arab lands, were demanding that the government deport the African refugees who have been receiving asylum and support from the Israeli government since fleeing their war-torn homelands. Likud MK Miri Regev reportedly told the crowd that the Sudanese were “a cancer in our body,” echoing the sentiments of Interior Minister Eli Yishai who called for Sudanese refugees to be jailed. Ultimately, the crowd resorted to violence, smashing the windows of a grocery store that served the Sudanese, a barbershop, and a car that was passing by. This past Tuesday, 11 Israeli minors were arrested and charged with carrying out violent attacks on African refugees, beating them with iron chains and boards in incidents taking place over the last month.

To be sure, public anger and outcry should always be examined for its underpinnings of legitimacy. For instance, there have been instances of crimes, robberies, and even rape perpetrated by Sudanese refugees living in Israel. And only a year removed from Israel’s largest mass-demonstrations ever it is understandable that citizens of Israel, who themselves are struggling to afford the rising costs of living, would protest their government’s financial support of a large group of non-citizens living in their backyard. I understand all of these legitimate concerns – but what I cannot understand, what I cannot abide by, is how those concerns devolved into xenophobic hatred and violence in what we proudly declare to be our Jewish State.

Alas, this issue cuts to the very core of the multi-faceted, complicated reality of a State that is meant to be at once modern and ancient, democratic and Jewish. How can Israel maintain its Jewish character while at the same time opening its doors as a safe haven to those who “were left of the sword?” How can she learn to provide adequate care for all her citizens while fulfilling the biblical precept of offering comfort to the stranger?

All throughout these past few weeks, as I pored over these troubling reports, I thought of the teaching of our great Rabbi Hillel in Pirkei Avot: “u’vimkom sheain anashim – hishtadel lihyot ish.” “In a place where no one is acting like a human being – act like a human being.”

And so we must ask ourselves, what is the ultimate purpose of our Jewish State if we cannot learn to act as Jews must: with passionate empathy for those who share our experience of fleeing from a thousand swords?

Rabbi Joel Seltzer is a rabbi at Temple Emanu-El in Providence, Rhode Island .